The Chicago Bears' Walter Payton was once called an "insane" runner by O. J. Simpson. By "insane," Simpson explained, "I mean there often is no rhyme or reason to what the runner does, but it all works out. It's an instinct."
O.K., O.J., now move over and make room for Walter Payton in the NFL record book. Maybe you even ought to let Walter take your place in those Hertz commercials while you're recovering from your knee operation. Then again, maybe you shouldn't, because Payton says he "hates red lights" and has chosen "Mississippi Maniac" as his CB handdle. But the least you can do for Payton after what he did last Sunday, O.J., is arrange a screen test for him with some of your Hollywood friends.
What Walter Payton did against the Minnesota Vikings at Chicago's Soldier Field was rush, gallop, stomp, cut, dive and squirm for a total of 275 yards to break by two yards the NFL single-game rushing record that Simpson set last Thanksgiving Day against the Detroit Lions. What Payton also did was lead the Bears to a 10-7 win over the Fran Tarkenton-less Vikings, which narrowed first-place Minnesota's lead in the NFC Central Division over onrushing Chicago to just one game.
"He's the best back in football," said Viking Coach Bud Grant. "I can't say anything about him that hasn't been said before. If I were better with words, maybe I could, but I'm not."
Payton—they call him Sweetness—has never been much of a word man, either, preferring to express himself with his feet. Following his record-shattering performance he kept repeating the names of the Bears' young offensive linemen—Tackles Ted Albrecht and Dennis Lick, both 23; Guards Revie Sorey, 24, Noah Jackson, 26; and Center Dan Peiffer, 26.
"They opened the holes and I just ran," said the 23-year-old Payton. "We just kept running sweeps and stringing out the Minnesota defense. It paid off. By the end of the game it seemed like the Vikings were tired. But our guys are young, they eat the right things, they get the right sleep and they weren't tired."
Payton, though, was tired even before the game. He was suffering the effects of a flu attack that had kept him in bed all Thursday and most of Friday. "I didn't think I could do too much when I came out for the introductions," he said. Payton isn't much of a thought man, either.
On Chicago's first play Quarterback Bob Avellini handed Payton the ball, and off he darted to the right side behind Sorey's block. "When he gets around me," Sorey says, "I know he's gonna get at least five yards." Payton got around Sorey and rumbled for 29. The show was on. When the quarter ended, Payton had carried 13 times for 77 yards.
He passed the 100-yard mark—for the seventh time in Chicago's 10 games—on his 22nd carry, and at the half he had carried 26 times for 144 yards. There was nothing complicated about Payton's M.O. He attacked to his right again and again and again. In fact, Payton ran to his left only twice in the first half.
"I wish I had Payton's line in front of me," said Minnesota Running Back Chuck Foreman, who gained only 54 yards against the Bears. "There's no line that good, other than maybe St. Louis', and because the Chicago guys are so young, there's no limit to what Payton will be able to do."
Said Sorey, "We're the only line you'll see running 40 yards down field, looking for someone else to block. Each of us tries to outdo the other, tries to block two men on each play."
Payton, of course, is an inspiration to any offensive lineman. A graduate of Jackson State, the 5'11", 204-pounder was the Bears' No. 1 draft choice in 1975, and that year he rushed for 679 yards. Last season he exploded for 1,390, finishing second to Simpson in the NFL rushing race.
Payton resumed his assault on the Vikings after the intermission. He burst over right tackle for a couple of yards, then rolled around right end again for 19 more. The proud old Vikings were being embarrassed, and they didn't like it. Aroused, they held Payton to three yards on a draw, stopped him for no gain on a sweep and nailed him after two yards on a burst over right tackle. Then, for the first time all day, the Vikings rose up and threw Payton for a loss, dropping him a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
But just when the Vikings thought they had him in check, Payton did another number around right end for 22 yards, and at the end of the third quarter he had carried 34 times for 192 yards. Payton had rushed for 205 yards against Green Bay a month ago; he passed the 200-yard mark against the Vikings on his second rush in the final quarter, surprising the Minnesota line by going over left tackle for a change and picking up four yards. But it was back around right end for nine more yards on his next carry.
There was less than five minutes to play now, and Payton was 63 yards short of Simpson's record—too many yards, even the most diehard Chicago fans concluded. Not Payton, though.
Taking a handoff from Avellini on the Bears' 33, he busted over right tackle, cut to the right and galloped down the sidelines. "Besides his God-given ability, the thing I like about Payton that even some of the so-called great backs don't do is he knows which hand to keep the football in," says Gale Sayers, the once-great Chicago runner who had to retire prematurely in 1971 after several knee operations. "When he's going down the sideline, he keeps the ball in the outside hand so he can use the inside hand to ward off tacklers." Payton straight-armed a couple of Vikings with his free hand, bowled over a couple more, then stepped out of bounds after a gain of 58 yards.
Now he needed five yards to tie O.J. A sweep around left end netted three. Then on his 40th—and final—carry Payton went around the right side and picked up four more. He had 275 for the game, and O.J.'s record was wiped out.
"Say, Walter, did anybody mention O.J.'s record to you during the game?" Payton was asked.
"Never," Payton said. "I don't like people coming up and telling me stuff like that when the game's on."
"Well, Walter, can you do it again?"
"Nobody knows that far ahead," Payton said. "Nobody knows what can happen. Only God knows."
"Is a 300-yard game possible?"
"I don't know. You'll have to call Him up."
Payton's yardage raised his season total to 1,404. He is the only NFL runner to have gained 1,000 yards this year, and he is 81 yards ahead of the pace O.J. set in 1973 when he established the NFL single-season rushing record of 2,003 yards.
"Say, Walter, how would you defense Walter Payton?"
"Well," he said, "the night before the game I'd kidnap Walter Payton."